When the first British outpost of the Italian megastore, Eataly, opened its doors a year ago I was predictably sceptical, and not only because the timing was so inauspicious (lockdown had only recently ended and all the offices near its vast emporium in the City of London were still mostly empty). What, I wondered, could it possibly sell that shoppers couldn’t get more conveniently, and more cheaply, elsewhere? But then my friend Tom produced a triumphant supper with some sausages he’d found there, and my resistance began to crumble. Maybe I was missing out. Maybe the answer to all my tinned tomato dreams was to be found in this culinary theme park, which sells 6,000 different Italian goods, and comes with six restaurants and one of the capital’s less charming terraces. (Now things are back to normal, your Aperol spritz will vibrate to the constant rumble of red buses.)
So, one recent lunchtime, I paid it a call. On the day in question, I expected it to be busy: in the spring sunshine, the pavements outside were thronged with people in unlikely sunglasses and too-tight shirts ferrying sandwiches from shop to desk. But inside, all was strangely quiet. Passing the meat counter, a butcher flashed me a smile of such piercing hopefulness, it was almost heartbreaking: a scene that may have come straight out of early Fellini were it not for, you know, the escalators, the lighting and the incredible, almost shameful, abundance. When my hand hovered for far too long on the door of a refrigerator that contained every possible kind of mozzarella, I knew I was perfectly safe in my indecision. No one was going to elbow me out of the way, for the simple reason that elbows, unlike products made with buffalo milk, were distinctly thin on the ground. Was this typical? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that according to Eataly, which opened its first branch in Turin in 2007 and now has stores in cities including New York, Tokyo, Paris and São Paulo, more than three million “visitors” have been through its London doors so far, to whom it has sold some 95,000 pieces of focaccia and 30,000 balls of its in-house burrata.
Wandering around, I felt as I often do in duty free shops. I did not need anything, and I was wary of the cost of everything, but I was also restless, suddenly itchy-fingered for a jar of walnut sauce or a box of Sardinian crackers. What made this even worse – my self-loathing was rising like a panettone – was the fact that certain corners of Eataly are practically beyond satire. The section devoted to fruit and veg, for instance, is the province of Natoora, purveyors of “radically seasonal” produce to the loaded middle classes, and it is utterly ridiculous. Not only are the vegetables – pristine yellow carrots, exquisitely sculptural artichokes and long, thin courgettes that bend at the end like treble clefs – arranged in tiny, forbidding groups, as if they’re priceless jewels, you can also buy little plastic tubs of Natoora turmeric hummus and watercress tzatziki, neither of which seem very Puglia-in-high-summer to me (though I suppose the sole kohlrabi on display was, by dint of its very loneliness, a new twist on cucina povera).
Tom, who works in advertising, had spoken convincingly to me of Eataly as Italian “soft power”, a concept I vowed to nick for this column. But as I picked up – and then put down – a truffle salami, I realised this didn’t wash with me. At Eataly, there are no churches, no mopeds, no Titians, no people standing up to drink their espressos, and, above all, nothing that seems as though it might have been made at home that very morning by someone with strong hands and a family recipe that has never been written down. This is Italy shrinkwrapped rather than fully fresh, and the shrinkwrapped version is, I believe, already available in supermarkets. Then again, when it comes to food of any kind, I’m also appallingly weak-willed. In the end, I went home with a tub of nubbly fresh pasta, a string bag of blood oranges, a little box of violet-flavoured liquorice – and the powerfully uncomfortable feeling that, when it comes to food, Britain has never, in my lifetime, been more painfully divided, nor more utterly insane.